'You gotta make them laugh'

Bill Maher on stand-up comedy, pot, and the state of the union
By PHILIP EIL  |  July 24, 2013

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RAZOR-SHARP "I've always been a comedian who was interested in politics and national affairs," Maher said.

“I have not been to this market for, I think, over 10 years,” Bill Maher says. He’s referring to his upcoming July 28 stand-up gig at the Newport Yachting Center as part of the Newport Summer Comedy Series. Maher urged his agent to book something in Rhode Island, he tells me, “because it’s a major market and the people, I remember the last time I played there, were fantastic.”

It took me a moment to realize he was using “market” and “Rhode Island” synonymously. But I soon forgave him because a) when was the last time we were “major” in anything? And b) when you’re a one-man media empire like Maher is, well, cities and states and groups of people understandably start to look like “markets.”

He’s come a long way from the snide, skinny guy making jokes about his mixed Jewish-Catholic heritage on his Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson debut in 1982 (“We used to go into confession and I would bring a lawyer in with me,” he said in that appearance). Today, he’s a fixture of American culture: toting his brand of razor-sharp, news-inflected humor and conversation from Comedy Central to ABC to HBO, where his show Real Time with Bill Maher has been a Friday night staple for a decade. All the while, he has published a small shelf of books; produced the $13 million-grossing documentary, Religulous; and shuttled from coast to coast tirelessly to perform as a stand-up comedian.

Indeed he’s so ubiquitous in 2013 that the distinctions between author, host, commentator, filmmaker, and talk show guest have all seemed to blur. Just what is he, exactly?

That’s one of the questions we asked him in a recent phone conversation before his arrival in our quaint little seaside “major market.”

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

YOU OCCUPY A UNIQUE POSITION IN AMERICA’S MEDIA LANDSCAPE. YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY A STAND-UP COMIC, BUT WHAT DO YOU CALL YOUR ROLE ONREAL TIME? ARE YOU A TALK SHOW HOST? A PUNDIT? Well, I mean, a “pundit”? I don’t even know what that word means. I feel like we have a fairly shallow culture. I feel like “pundit” has become just someone with an opinion who has a microphone and that’s a pretty low bar. So by that bar, yeah, OK, I’m a “pundit.”

That’s never what I set out to be. I’ve always been a comedian who was interested in politics and national affairs. I was never the kind of comedian who talked about trivial matters, even when I was young and I probably should have been talking about those matters, because it would have made more sense to the audience. When I was 25 years old and doing stand-up and talking about the Democrats and what the Republicans should do . . . the audience looked at me like, “Where do you get an opinion? You just got out of college. You don’t even look like you’re old enough to shave.” But over the years you grow into that.

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